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2023 Hawaii Rainbow Warriors Football Preview

Picked to finish 10th in the MWC preseason poll, low expectations and an unresolved stadium problem do not dampen the mood for a Hawaii program hoping to find their footing

Nevada v Hawaii Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

There is a certain magic about the anticipation of another college football season. The Gregorian calendar will have you believe the calendar year begins with January, but whether it’s the new school year beginning or football starting back up, August often feels like the beginning of something new for football fans. Nobody has lost a game yet; everyone is undefeated and optimism springs eternal. You know, when conference realignment isn’t devastating the sport.

Hawaii Warriors fans have reason to be optimistic. Head coach Timmy Chang seems to be making progress in local and mainland recruiting that hasn’t been seen at UH in a long time. There are no silver and bronze medalists in recruiting, but Hawaii is even seeing their name attached to top recruits that five years ago might’ve laughed off the Warriors. There’s a sense Hawaii is poised to take off at some point. They’re going to land one of these 4-star high school kids eventually.

Optimism for this fall? It’s up for debate, and it’s hard to blame fans for being a little cautious. The foundation of the #BRADDAHOOD had fans stoked for football entering 2022, so much so that maybe the first month of the season caught some viewers off guard. Blowout losses to Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky. Narrowly defeating Duquesne. The program’s first ever loss to New Mexico State. Let’s be real: we should have seen it coming, the transfer portal losses Chang and his staff inherited were nothing short of program-shifting.

All the same, it was a wakeup call. Hawaii football is in the midst of a rebuild. Mind you, this is a program with a history of surprising when expectations are low (1992, 1999, etc.), but struggles on the field should not surprise anyone at this point. Timmy Chang is establishing a program built on development of high school talent. He’s brought in some impressive FBS and JC transfers but isn’t hoarding them in an attempt to shortcut this rebuild. Chang is building something that will last.

The current state of the roster, however, is hit and miss depending on the position groups. We’ll dig into that. For now, it’s safe to acknowledge that Timmy Chang is building some serious momentum for Hawaii football. The program is a strange purgatory of sorts with the stadium situation still very much unsolved (Aloha Stadium, condemned in early 2021, still stands!). Conference realignment looms over college football like a stormy cloud. Hawaii’s place in all of that is to-be-determined. There are positive and even doomsday scenarios on that front.

Despite it all, Chang and his staff tune out the negative realities surrounding them and continue to make big steps in recruiting to get Hawaii back to the top of the Mountain West. Development cannot be rushed though; the fruits of labor typically don’t arrive until year’s 3 and 4 of a coaching regime. How will the current Warriors fare in 2023? Let’s take a look.


Reasons for optimism: It’s no secret the Hawaii offense did not find its footing in 2022. Blame scheme, personnel, whatever. It just didn’t work. 19.4 points per game, good (bad?) for 113th nationally. How does Timmy Chang plan to fix this? Time to bust out ole’ reliable: the run-and-shoot offense.

I’m feeling a slight sense of Déjà vu writing that. Yes, it was five years ago that then head coach Nick Rolovich decided to re-adopt the offense June Jones made famous at the FBS level of college football. Rolovich needed to do this to get Hawaii’s offense out of a rut. Sound familiar? Todd Graham had other ideas on offense. Initially, so did Timmy Chang, but starting this fall Hawaii will be throwing the football all over the field at Ching Stadium.

At Mountain West media days, Chang told reporters that starting quarterback Brayden Schager has been working with Dan Morrison all off-season to understand the intricacies of the run-and-shoot. Morrison was the quarterbacks coach at Hawaii under June Jones during the prime of Hawaii football. If anyone can get Schager up-to-speed, it’s Morrison.

Hawaii’s best offensive player for 2023? It might be running back Tylan Hines. Chang said Hines is a dark horse to be the Mountain West’s best running back. Bold claim considering some of the names at that position in the conference. Hines has also been working in the off-season as a slot wide receiver. He’ll be deployed all over the field and is Hawaii’s most dynamic offensive player. If you’re a neutral tuning into Hawaii’s games, Hines is the player to focus on.

It’s natural to expect Hawaii’s wide receiver corps to improve dramatically, at least statistically anyway. Chang told reporters at Mountain West media days that he’s bullish on the younger receivers in the group. Keep an eye out for 5’7” 165 lbs junior receiver Koali Nishigaya. Nishigaya has flashed at times in the past, but he’s a natural fit for the run-and-shoot system. There’s also a belief Kansas transfer Steven McBride will make an instant impact in this offense. Really, if any of Nick Cenacle, Jonah Panoke, Jalen Walthall, Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala, possibly others ended up breaking out, it shouldn’t be a surprise. That’s the nature of the run-and-shoot.

Rejoice: the run-and-shoot is back. At the very least, Hawaii should be better statistically and be far more entertaining on offense than last season.

Reasons for concern: Yards per game can be a deceiving statistic at times. Team A runs 41 plays in a game for 355 yards. Team B runs 60 plays in a game for 411 yards. Team B had the higher yardage total, the “better” yardage total to some, but really Team A was much more efficient with the plays they were allotted for that game. For that reason, yards per play (YPP) is the better simplistic metric. In 2022, Hawaii’s offense ranked 98th nationally with 4.9 YPP. It could’ve been worse, but for a program with lofty expectations on the offensive side of the ball, 4.9 YPP is an ugly number that tells an obvious story: the Warrior offense struggled to move the ball consistently.

Putting on my Captain Obvious hat, Hawaii intends to throw the ball a ton now that it has re-adopted the run-and-shoot offense. Last season, Hawaii’s success rate (an efficiency metric that determines the success of a play) on passing downs was a shocking 24%. Not good. Bottom line: Hawaii wants to throw the ball but wasn’t good at that last season. Brayden Schager and the offense will need to raise their games a level this fall to turn a weakness into a strength.

They will do so while attempting to replace some key starters on the offensive line. Ilm Manning, Micah Vanterpool, Austin Hopp, and Stephan Bernal-Wendt all started plenty of games in 2022 and have moved on. Manning in particular was an all-conference standout that was the cornerstone of the program for a long time. His absence will take some getting used to.

Hawaii moving back to the run-and-shoot will be a plus in the long run, but this is a repetition system. Even the hallowed likes of the Colt Brennan teams took some time to gel in the system when they first executed June Jones’ offense in 2005. The timing between quarterback and wide receivers is essential. I think we’ll see progress this fall but wouldn’t be floored to see another slow start on offense.

A minor note on concerns: running back Nasjzae Bryant-Lelei was seen with his knee wrapped in fall camp. That’s worth monitoring, his loss would hurt the team’s depth at running back.

Key Stat: 7.6 yards per carry. Only trailing Air Force’s John Lee Eldridge III, Hawaii running back Tylan Hines had an outrageous 634 rushing yards on only 83 carries. Hines has embraced the Hawaii community and has the chance to be an all-conference standout.

Wildcard: Wide receiver Chad Owens Jr. I mentioned Koali Nishigaya as a perfect fit for this system and sentimentality has me hoping the 5’8” 170 lbs Owens can flourish in this system as well. How awesome would that be? Owens Jr. thriving in the run-and-shoot as his father did decades ago. One can dream.


Reasons for optimism: September 2022 ended up being a humbling experience for the Warriors, and there was no greater shock than how poorly the defense played. Conceding 63 points to Vanderbilt, 49 to Western Kentucky, 45 to New Mexico State. It’s not every day that finishing a season conceding 34.9 points per game is a good thing, but it is when you concede 45.4 points per game in September. One of the long bright spots in 2022 was the progression of the defense, and there is good reason to be confident that the 2023 defense will be even better.

Live by the transfer portal, die by the transfer portal. Hawaii spent plenty of time dying via the portal in 2022, but Timmy Chang struck back this cycle when he picked up a major addition in former Wyoming cornerback Cameron Stone. It’s not every day you add an eventual Jim Thorpe Award Preseason Watch List athlete. Safeties Meki Pei and Peter Manuma along with cornerback Virdel Edwards already meant Hawaii returned one of the better secondaries in the Mountain West. Adding Stone gives them an all-conference caliber star, making the back end of the defense the strength of the football team. Justin Sinclair and Kaulana Makaula will battle for the nickel spot and hope to round out a secondary that has a shout for the best in the conference.

Another huge positive for the defense this fall will be senior linebacker Logan Taylor, who burst onto the scene late last season when injuries piled up. Hawaii’s defensive turnaround and Taylor’s entrance into the starting lineup is not a coincidence. Timmy Chang calls Taylor the team’s spiritual leader and a “dirty player” said in the nicest of ways. Hawaii can use some nasty out there.

Defensive tackle John Tuitupou returns for another season and his experience and leadership by example will be needed upfront. Hawaii used a plethora of scholarships to shore up the defensive line and linebacker units in the hopes that depth will be improved this fall.

There are some question marks overall (we’ll get to that), but the reason for optimism for the 2023 Hawaii defense is obvious: the secondary could be special.

Reasons for concern: The stories Blessman Ta’ala could tell. Present for the Nick Rolovich era, Todd Graham era, and the beginning of the Chang regime. Through all the ups and downs, the nose tackle from American Samoa was a rock for the program.

As is the nature with college athletics, Ta’ala is out of eligibility, leaving the Warriors with a huge void to fill. Thankfully, Timmy Chang and his coaching staff were prepared for the loss. The Warriors hit the recruiting trail and added several players who could provide depth at both nose tackle and defensive tackle. Daniel “Sauce” Williams figures to play a role at nose tackle. Kuao Peihopa transfers in from Washington and Elijah Robinson will help at defensive tackle after playing football at East Carolina. Replacing Ta’ala will not be an easy task, but the Warriors appear to have added plenty of candidates to do the job. Again, John Tuitupou’s leadership will be important.

Once again, I feel like I am repeating myself, but I’ll continue to harp on this until Hawaii improves it. The Warriors ranked 127th nationally in sacks forced last season with 17 sacks all season. The days of Travis LaBoy, Ikaika Alama-Francis, Mel Purcell, David Veikune and several other great defensive ends harassing opposing quarterbacks feels like ages ago. Hawaii routinely struggles to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable, and it’s really hard to be great at football when that’s a consistent issue.

Wynden Ho’ohuli is moving to defensive end, the blue-chip recruit Hawaii pried from Nebraska last year. Ho’ohuli dealt with injuries in 2022 but I believe he can put an end to Hawaii’s issues with pressuring quarterbacks. Alas, until someone does it, this remains a concern.

Key Stat: 126th. That’s what Hawaii ranked nationally in opponent rushing yards per game. There’s no question that the secondary could be special, but their influence will be mitigated if Hawaii can’t stop the run.

Wildcard: I kind of gave it away, didn’t I? Jonah Kahahawai-Welch and Andrew Choi will likely start at defensive end, but I’m super high on Wynden Ho’ohuli. If he stays healthy, he is going to post the best numbers from a Hawaii defensive end since Kaimana Padello. I’m speaking it into existence.

Special Teams

Reasons for optimism: Always difficult to bust out paragraphs about special teams. Reason for optimism? Kicker Matthew Shipley is back! The reliable Shipley made 80% of his field goal attempts in 2022 and tied a career-long with a 49-yard field goal against Utah State. You never know when a kicker is going to be the difference in a football game and having Shipley back provides experience and reliability. Timmy Chang wants to score touchdowns and not field goals, but it’s nice to know the security blanket of Shipley is back for another season.

There is a chance Ben Falck could help with placekicking or even punting but expect Shipley to be relied upon.

Hawaii ranked 41st nationally in opponent kick return yardage last season, so have some faith that Hawaii will stop opposing return men!

Reasons for concern: After losing the all-world star returner that was Calvin Turner Jr., it was no shock to see Hawaii’s numbers plummet in the punt returning department. Jalen Perdue had 23 returns for 432 yards for an 18.8 average per return, solid numbers, but he’s moved on. A lot of teams are opting to fair catch on kick returns and even punt returns, so coloring this as a concern might be too heavy a word, but it would be nice if a dynamic returner emerged.

Hawaii ranked 91st in punt return defense, cleaning that up would be a positive development.

Key Stat: Again, Hawaii ranked 121st in punt returns. C’mon, there is plenty of dynamic skill position talent on the roster. Someone has to be good at returning punts, right?

Wildcard: Tylan Hines. Wouldn’t this be fun? Unsure how much extra danger the Warriors want to put one of their best players in, but he certainly would make noise in the return department.

2023 Hawaii Schedule

Aug. 26 – at Vanderbilt

Sept. 1 – Stanford

Sept. 9 – Albany

Sept. 16 – at Oregon

Sept. 23 – New Mexico State

Sept. 30 – at UNLV*

Oct. 14 – San Diego State*

Oct. 21 – at New Mexico*

Oct. 28 – San Jòse State*

Nov. 4 – at Nevada*

Nov. 11 – Air Force*

Nov. 18 – at Wyoming*

Nov. 25 – Colorado State*

* – denotes Mountain West game

Thoughts: As I pointed out earlier in this preview, this isn’t the first time Hawaii has re-adopted the run-and-shoot offense. In 2017, Hawaii’s offense finished 109th nationally with a meager 21.1 points per game. Nick Rolovich returned Hawaii to its run-and-shoot roots and in 2018 jumped to 29.9 points per game, good for 43rd nationally. Clearly the change worked as intended.

The 2023 schedule presents more challenges, but also opportunities to surprise onlookers. Hawaii is floating around 17-point underdog status against Vanderbilt for the Week 0 opener. That’ll be a tough game, but at least the Commodores won’t sneak up on the Warriors this time.

The Week 1 game against Stanford is massive. Friday night, national audience, Manoa campus’ first time experiencing a weekday event like this. The Cardinal have the better roster but are in the midst of a rebuild themselves. If Hawaii is looking for an upset victory and signature win for the early Timmy Chang era, it’s this game. Hawaii rounds out September with Albany from the FCS, a road trip to Oregon, a home game against New Mexico State, and a surprisingly early road trip to Vegas.

The Warriors dodge Boise State, Fresno State, and Utah State in Mountain West play. Goodness, it will be weird not playing the Bulldogs this season. It’ll be the first time the programs won’t play each other since 1991.

Hawaii’s mainland trips in conference are UNLV, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wyoming. None of those games will be easy, but all are winnable. On the flip side, San Diego State, San Jose State, Air Force, and Colorado State will present a tough home slate.

Hawaii has certainly had tougher schedules, but this won’t be a picnic either.

Best Case Scenario: After being shockingly embarrassed by the Commodores in Week 0 of 2022, the Warriors go all the way to Nashville and push Vanderbilt to the brink, sparking optimism that this year will be different. After a narrow loss, Hawaii returns home and upsets Stanford in the home opener to give Timmy Chang his first signature win. Going into October, the Warriors are shocking 4-2 having only lost to Vanderbilt and Oregon.

Hawaii splits the October home games against San Diego State and San Jose State but pulls off road victories in Reno and Albuquerque. Flying high in the run-and-shoot offense, Hawaii doesn’t experience back-to-back losses until dropping games against Air Force at Ching Stadium and Wyoming in Laramie. Hawaii refuses to stumble at the finish line and beats Colorado State on Senior Night. Despite preseason projections of doom and gloom, Hawaii finishes the regular season 8-5 and qualifies for the Hawaii Bowl.

Worst Case Scenario: Not again. Hawaii fulfills their obligation of the Vanderbilt series and travels to Nashville and experiences the same fate as last season: another blowout loss. Hawaii then loses the Stanford game, and the team is already 0-2. The Warriors manage to hold off Albany but follow that up by losing emphatically in Eugene.

Beaten but not completely discouraged, Hawaii’s gut punch arrives in the form of a home loss to New Mexico State. The run-and-shoot offense doesn’t mask the talent deficiencies on the roster and Hawaii limps into conference play.

Dealing with a rash of injuries, Hawaii does not begin to find their stride until late in the season when the damage is done. No progress made, the Warriors finish 3-10 again.

What’s probably going to happen: I think asking Hawaii to emerge from Nashville with a victory is a bit much, but I think they’ll fare much better than 63-10. Not a high bar, I know.

I’ll call my shot: I think Hawaii football is due for some positive luck. These last few years have been a tidal wave of negative circumstances, but against Stanford I think a few turnovers forced by Hawaii’s secondary lead the way to a huge upset for an admittedly rebuilding Cardinal program.

Hawaii beats Albany and New Mexico State but loses to Oregon and UNLV on the road. 3-3 through September, a result Timmy Chang would take. I think there will be some ups and downs with this team, so I will not go as far as to say the Stanford win propels UH to a surprise winning season, but I think progress will be visible.

Home losses to San Diego State and San Jose State damper the mood, but the Warriors collect wins at both Nevada and New Mexico. Air Force and Wyoming prove to be just a bit too much, but respectable losses. Hawaii beats Colorado State on Senior Night. The Warriors finish 6-7. Not a banner season by any means, but a clear sign of progress.

Don’t lie, UH fans. Homer hopes aside, you’d take this result for 2023.

Final takeaway: Listening to Timmy Chang at Mountain West media days, I took away a sense of optimism, but also an admission of sorts that Hawaii football is still in the storm. Recruiting is showing real signs of progress, but development can’t be rushed. At the moment, the roster has some promising players but depth figures to be a problem across the board.

Have patience, Hawaii fans. The madness of realignment aside, I think Timmy Chang is exactly the man for the job. He’s trying to build a program that emphasizes player development and keeps local kids home. The vision is there. However, it’ll take time to realize that vision.

Proceed with excitement knowing better days are ahead.

Hawaii opens the 2023 season on Saturday, August 26th in Nashville, Tennessee against the Vanderbilt Commodores of the SEC.